IS a trip to Batanes on your bucket list? Do you want to add some birdwatching on the side? Tonji Ramos writes about some of the interesting birds found in Batanes during a trip from October to November 2011.
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BATANES BIRDING TIPS
by Tonji Ramos
It is easy to put off going to Batanes. It is far. It is the northernmost tip of the Philippines, closer to Taiwan than Luzon. The flight is expensive. The weather can change quickly and flights have a habit of getting cancelled. There are no endemic species. There are no certain birds to be found there because most of the birds there are migratory.
Why take the risk then to go to such a far-flung group of islands? The reason is simple — because it is breathtakingly beautiful. We have gone birding all over the country. But the windy province of Batanes has got to rank as one of the most dramatic settings for birding in the Philippines.
I like to daydream before I go on a birding trip. For Batanes I was hoping to see some birds wading in the sea while the water crashed on the rocks all around. I imagined rare migrant birds seldom seen in the mainland, hopping around the grass unaware of their rarity in my Kennedy guide. In some of my trips the expectations don’t match reality, but sometimes the real experience is better than the one I imagined. Our Batanes experience surpassed what I had imagined.
Flights and Accomodations
There are nine islands in Batanes. Three of them are inhabited, Batan, Itbayat, and Sabtang. We chose to visit Batan and Sabtang given our one week time frame.
We took the Seair flight from Manila to Basco. It cost P15, 310. The ticket is costly and the baggage allowance is tiny. We were only allowed 7 kilos for our carry on bag and 10 kilos for our check in baggage. Our usual photography and birding gear weighs around 14 kilos already. We had to leave a lot of our birding and photography gear at home because of the weight restrictions.
The flights get cancelled all the time. It is best to plan on staying a few days more than you booked because they cancel the flights when it rains hard or if the visibility is bad.
We stayed in a place called Shanedel’s Inn & Café on the recommendation of Christian Perez and JP Carino. The place is very simple, and the rooms are quite spartan, 2 beds and a bathroom. The cost of our room was P1, 600.00. The water pressure was ok in our room and bad in Christian’s and Robert’s rooms. You must pre-arrange your meals and give them time to go to the market and buy the food, prepare it and cook it. There is a hamburger place right beside which served decent burgers and there was a restaurant down the street but the service there was quite slow. All in all for the least effort and hassle if you stay in Shanedel’s just order the food in advance and relax by the veranda and you may get to see a lifer or two fly by.
The hotel was a bit of a bird magnet. We saw the Great Cormorant within minutes of checking in right in the veranda. Robert saw a Fork-tailed Swift while sitting in the veranda and waiting for the rain to pass. We all heard the Ryuku Scops Owl calling early in the morning from the lot right beside the hotel. You never can tell what you will see in Batanes. Shandel’s is really a super simple hotel. But it worked out well enough for us.
If you want the deluxe or high end accomodations then that would be Fundacion Pacita Abad. It is a bit far from town but it has a great view and it is certainly more charming than Shanedel’s Inn. The rooms start at P6,800 and go up to P13,000 per night. But they have discounts sometimes of up to 40% off during the off- season. Fundacion Pacita Abad has a nice little grouping of trees that supposedly has the Japanese Paradise Flycatcher during the summer months.
We did not have a bird guide but we had a fellow named Roger Amboy to show us around. He knows all the places in Batanes but he is not really a bird guide. We found his services useful especially the way he arranged all our transportation needs. Our group paid Roger P1, 000.00 a day. His phone number is (0918) 333 1797.
We rented a van for P2,000.00 for 8 hours. It included a driver and gasoline. If you extend the use of the van beyond 8 hours you have to pay more.
Our total expenses for the 5 nights and 6 days including airfare came to around P25, 000 per person. If you are going to Batanes just to see new birds it is not cost efficient on a peso per bird basis. It would be better to go to Palawan or Mindanao. But if you want to see Batanes for its natural beauty and go birding at the same time, it is a great place to visit.
Food and Provisions
The food was simple. There are stores to buy other items but opening and closing times were variable. You can buy water, beer, chips and grocery items in the stores.
I would suggest that you bring the usual dry fit/ quick dry birding clothes as well as a rain jacket and a small umbrella. There are some trails so bring your regular hiking shoes. Wear them on the plane so they don’t eat up your 10 kilo check in allowance. Bring sunblock and a hat.
There is smart and globe signal in both Batan and Sabtang. Christian used the internet café, the internet as expected is rather slow. Electricity was pretty stable.
We went to Sabtang one day. Roger arranged our transportation and we had a great time. The boat trip to Sabtang was P50 each way. We had good looks at some duck species, one of which was a lifer the Eurasian Wigeon. We also had our first look at the White-shouldered Starling. The view was fantastic. If we had more time it would have been nice to just take more time looking around the island but we only had a few hours so it was a quick tour.
In the end we Sylvia and I were surprised that we had seen nine lifers and we photographed ten photo lifers. Our lifers included 5 rare birds, so it was nice to knock a few rare birds off the list.
Our favorite birding sites were the veranda (2 lifers and a white phase Eastern Reef Egret), the town plaza (White Wagtail, White shouldered Starling, Chestnut-cheeked Starling, Common Snipe), the freshwater ponds in Batan and Sabtang (Spot-billed Ducks, Eurasian Wigeon, Great Cormorant, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Pond Heron presumed to be Chinese). I would suggest that you keep you eyes open along the beaches and rocks. And pay special attention to all the fresh water sources such as rivers, streams, canals, and pools.
The usual target birds for Batanes are:
Ryuku Scops Owl: We heard 3 individuals in a forested area. We waited for them for a few hours, to the amusement of a farmer but we left an hour too early. They were reported to have landed on the exact tree we were looking at one hour later. We later heard one individual in the tree of our hotel and in the lot beside the hotel.
Whistling Green-Pigeon: In the Philippines Batanes would be the place to see this species. But it only shows up for the breeding season from March to June according to the Kennedy guide.
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher: We did not see or hear any of these birds, despite looking at all the known locations for this bird. They are supposed to be summer birds, arriving in March in leaving in August. We were told they are very vocal and easily seen at that time. Since we went at the end of October it was probably too late to see them.
Chestnut Eared Bulbul: This is an easy bird to hear. A slightly difficult bird to photograph well because it is a bit shy compared to the Philippine or Yellow vented Bulbul. They were numerous and easy to identify.
Fork-tailed Swift: We did not look for this bird. We forgot to put it in our list of target birds. But one rainy day a lone bird flew up on the veranda were Robert was trying to do some rainy day birding and gave him a good view.
Blue Rock Thrush: They are all over the place. On rocks, on hillsides, on roofs, on wires….
Lowland White-eye: A very common bird. It is a different race batanis. It is supposed to be larger and brighter than the race meyeni found elsewhere in the Philippines.
Zitting Cisticola: The ones found there are the brunniceps subspecies found in Batan, Ivojos, and Sabtang
Philippine Cuckoo-dove: Batanes has an endemic race of this species, septentrionalis . It has a more reddish color. We saw them in the Northern tip of Batan Island.
White-Bellied Sea-Eagle: We saw a few individuals. They are well known to the residents of the islands.
My suggestion would be to go in October. It seems to give a better chance to see migrant birds. But if you want to see the Japanese Paradise Flycatcher and the Whistling Green Pigeon then it would be best to go in March to June.
Batanes is a beautiful place. We had great company saw great birds and had a lot of fun.